Massive Electrical Resistance: The Struggle for Democracy at Mecklenburg Co-op

By Henry Leifermann and Preston Quesenberry

Vol. 18, No. 3-4, 1996 pp. 16-17

For well over a decade, Cora Tucker, a civil rights activist and founder of the grassroots organization Citizens for a Better America, has been working to get African-American candidates democratically elected to the board of directors of the Mecklenburg Electric Co-op in Virginia, located on the North Carolina state line near I-95. African-American members have never elected one of their own candidates to the co-op board, despite making up more than a third of Mecklenburg's customers, says Tucker.

Currently, two of Mecklenburg's eleven board members are African American, but African-American communities did not nominate either of them as candidates, Tucker says. In order to get people on the board who are selected by and accountable to local communities, Tucker and her supporters have been mailing out letters to all of the black churches in the service area, alerting their leaders to the upcoming board election in June of 1997 and asking them to consider whether they or anyone else in their congregations might be interested in running. The letter also informs them about the board's responsibilities and about the resources it controls.

"People don't understand what the board does," Tucker says. "The board decides who gets the grants and who gets the loans. If we could get someone elected at least we could know what's going on. We'd know what money is available, and how we can apply for these funds. There's a lot of things we could get done if we worked together."

If the letter-writing effort succeeds in initiating a grassroots reform campaign, Tucker believes candidates will face formidable obstacles to actually being elected. One of the most persistent barriers to fair representation is the election system itself; although candidates run as representatives of separate districts within the co-op service area, each voter is allowed to cast a ballot for every district. Although eliminated in most governmental elections because it discriminates against black populations by diluting the effects of their votes, this "post-at-large" system of voting is still common in many co-ops.

Tucker notes that even getting the names of their candidates on the write-in ballots that Mecklenburg mails out to its customers will prove a difficult task. Four or five months before its June annual meeting, Mecklenburg will mail out ballots with the names of candidates already printed on them, and Tucker and her supporters have yet to figure out how to get their own candidates' names on these ballots. "We've tried and tried," she says. "We've called and written them letters, saying `Look, we would like to have some input before you print the ballots.' They never wrote back or called back, and they just keep sending out these ballots with names already printed on them."

At least now the Mecklenburg board of directors "goes through the motions" of holding a democratic election through mail-in ballots, Tucker says. For years, board members simply re-elected themselves at their annual meetings or violated co-op bylaws by electing their chosen candidates though the use of large numbers of proxy votes--ballots gathered from members who often were uninterested in who controlled their co-op.

The 1983 Campaign: Democracy Postponed

Local African-American leaders first challenged this use of proxy votes in 1983. With support from the Co-op Democracy Project, three black men ran for election to the board that year, while Tucker and other community organizers arranged to show up at the annual meeting with enough supporters to vote the reform candidates


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into office. Five days before the meeting, however, the co-op board realized its intention to vote more than seven thousand proxies would probably be challenged. The co-op manager and his staff worked through the weekend before the Tuesday election, phoning and visiting members to get them to attend the annual meeting in person.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. By 5:30, a mile-long line of automobiles carrying white co-op supporters stretched in front of the co-op offices. By eight o'clock, when voting began, more than twenty-five hundred co-op members were in attendance. News reports observed that not even the local football games had attracted such a sizable crowd of local residents in recent history. The opposition candidates and their supporters were overwhelmed. After the election, Tucker returned to her rural home around midnight to discover someone had broken in and soaked her bed with heating oil while she was gone.

Three weeks later, Dr. Curtis W. Harris of Hopewell, president of the Virginia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held a news conference and called for a state investigation of the Mecklenburg election. In a statement, Harris observed that control and accountability were the election's central issues: "A group of members became concerned that low-income residential users of all races were subsidizing the electric bills of large dairy farmers and mechanized tobacco farmers using lots of irrigation and electricity." Harris said that at that time, forty-three percent of the co-op's customer-members were black, but the Democracy Project could not reach many of those potential voters to seek their participation in the election, because co-op management charged $500 for a copy of its list of members.

After the loss in the 1983 election, "people were so devastated that it was hard to get them to turn out at meetings," says Tucker. Even if members could have been rallied, the board has changed its procedures so that showing up at annual meetings has become an ineffectual strategy for electing new directors. Largely be-cause of the challenge to incumbents in the 1983 election and Harris's subsequent call for a state investigation, the Mecklenburg board began mailing out ballots to its members. Now, by the time members show up at the June annual meeting to nominate their own candidate, "everybody's already gotten their ballots in the mail and sent them back," Tucker says.